First Impressions: Blender 2.5

Blender 2.49b in action
Before: Blender 2.49b in action
After: Blender 2.5 (dev build)
After: Blender 2.5 (dev build). This is just three panels -- the left panel is the texture tab of the properties viewer.

I’ve been waiting for Blender 2.5 with bated breath, and finally downloaded a build that actually runs on my Macbook Pro, so I thought I’d share some impressions. (I note that Ton Roosendaal seems to use a Macbook Pro so I’m surprised it’s taken this long, but I may just have been unlucky.)

Polish

Blender 2.5 goes from being an app with a serviceable-looking but bizarrely organized UI to an actively attractive and generally well-organized application. To begin with, all the icons, scroll bars, buttons, and so forth actually look good, and there’s no confusion as to whether a button is a regular button, toggle, checkbox, or pushbutton.

Less is More

One of the single greatest things the UI designers elected to do is stop assuming a control list could be horizontal or vertical and designing everything accordingly. They’ve taken the path 3D Studio Max took from the beginning and assumed all panels will be vertical, and acted accordingly. The result is that vertical panels work really well (even supporting two-finger trackpad scrolling under OS X — and this is a pre-beta build) and look great. The upshot is that you can set up a useful workspace with just three panels instead of the usual goodness-knows-how-many.

If you look at the screenshot of 2.5, note that there’s now a single set of icons (not two that operate combinatorically) and it changes based on context (i.e. you only get what’s appropriate for the current selection. The icons are a lot less mystifying and more attractive, too.

More is More

Next on either side of the knight are interesting panels. These are part of the 3D view and can be toggled (by default) with T (for the “tool” panel on the left) and N (for the “numeric” properties on the right).

The tool panel takes a whole bunch of stuff that used to be (mystifyingly) hidden in the properties tabs (so you needed to drill down into geometry settings to extrude a face, for example) and puts it in the obvious place — always one keystroke away.

The properties panel duplicates some of the functionality of the properties… er… window… — it replaces the translucent floating editors from earlier versions. Notably it provides immediate access to the cursor’s position — which is very useful since Blender still makes it all too easy to misplace the cursor.

I've selected the camera here and the standard 3d transformation widget lets me manipulate it directly.
I've selected the camera here and the standard 3d transformation widget lets me manipulate it directly.

There’s a lot of attention to detail. You used to need two 3d views open in order to perform direct transformations on the camera. Now, when you select the camera (e.g. via the outline view or by clicking on the camera’s frame inside the 3d view) a transform widget for the camera appears where-ever the cursor is in the 3d view. So now you can dolly, pan, etc. using standard 3d manipulation tools inside a single 3d view.

Another interesting change — I like it, but I’m not sure I love it — is that the “spacebar menu” has been replaced with a spotlight-like instant function search. Because most of the functions that used to live in the spacebar menu are now accessible via the tool panel, this lets you more-or-less instantly get to any operation by name with a few keystrokes (and it tells you the shortcut too). E.g. if I alter my view and want to snap the camera to my new view, I hit space and type “cam” and it finds the item.

Summing Up

It’s early days yet, but Blender 2.5 is looking shockingly good. Blender 2.49 offered a staggering amount of functionality in an intimidating package. Blender 2.5 promises a user interface at least as approachable as any full-featured tool wrapped around that same functionality (and more). And it’s not like all the changes are on the UI side — one user found a 4x speedup in rendering (Blender’s interactive performance has always been excellent — it pays to think of your editor environment as a game development system). In a sense, Blender 2.49 is the Mozilla of 3d, and Blender 2.5 promises to be Firefox.